More than 60 years after Joe Ball committed his crimes, it is difficult to assemble a factual account. None of the original investigators is alive and the local authorities have no files or written accounts. Had it not been for the persistence of Michael Hall, managing editor of the Austin Chronicle, there probably would not have been a story to tell — at least not a very detailed one. During the summer of 2002, Hall ferreted out surviving witnesses, relatives and other details about Joe Ball. This information was published in the July 1, 2002, issue of Texas Monthly magazine. His account, along with various pre-existing reports, has made it possible to put together a reasonably complete story of Joe Balls life and crimes.
Texas Monthly magazine cover
Although most Texans do not recall how many people Joe killed or when the crimes took place, virtually all know his name and have heard stories about him. Many were told the tale by their parents at bedtime, or while sitting around a campfire trading ghost stories. Whether it is the sheer brutality of his crimes or the unique aspects of the case, the name Joe Ball is one not easily forgotten.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre & Eaten Alive
Most horror buffs have seen Tobe Hooper’s popular movie The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It was Hoopers second movie, Eaten Alive, which may have been more reality based. The film told the tale of a crazed Texas hotel owner who fed his guests, including a pretty hooker, to an alligator he kept behind the hotel. Surely this is not sheer coincidence, and strongly suggests that Mr. Hooper, like many Texans, remains fascinated by Joe Ball and what he did to his victims.
A New Settlement
In the late 1800s, the state of Texas was a wide open frontier with thousands of acres of unsettled land. The Indian wars and feuds with Mexico were all but forgotten, as most were looking ahead to the future. One of those looking ahead was Joe Balls father Frank. Around 1885, Frank Ball moved to Elemendorf, Texas, a small town 15 miles southeast of San Antonio, which had recently been founded by a man named Henry Elmendorf, who would later become the mayor of San Antonio.
Shortly after his arrival, Frank borrowed some money from the bank and opened a factory to process cotton. Shortly thereafter, the railroad ran tracks through town and Franks business boomed, making him a very wealthy man. He began dabbling in real estate, buying and selling properties throughout the area, and he eventually opened a general store in town. Frank and his wife, Elizabeth, raised eight children in one of the first stone homes to be built in the area. Every one of the children prospered and several became important figures in the community. Frank Jr. worked for the school district and became a trustee in 1914. His brother Raymond opened his own grocery store, and in 1926 married a local teacher, Jane Terrell, who was later appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940 as postmaster, and served the community for 27 years.
Frank and Elizabeths second child, Joseph D. Ball, was born on Jan. 7, 1896. Throughout his childhood Joe kept to himself and rarely participated in activities with other children, preferring to spend his time outdoors fishing and exploring. As he reached adolescence, Joes passion turned to guns. He loved them, and spent several hours every week practicing and perfecting his skills. My uncle could shoot a bird off a telephone line with a pistol from the bumper of his Model A Ford,” Joes nephew, Bucky Ball, said in a July 2002 interview with Texas Monthly magazine. Whether Joe had suspected it at the time or not, these skills would soon come in handy.
On April 6, 1917, the United States formally declared war against Germany and entered the conflict in Europe. Shortly after the start of the war, Joe Ball enlisted and was shipped off to the front lines in Europe. While there is no surviving record of his deeds or actions during the war, Joe survived and in 1919 received an honorable discharge from the Army and returned to his hometown of Elmendorf.
Joe worked for his father for a while, but then quit. Some surmised that after a couple of years in foxholes, Joe needed some time to adjust to civilian life. Joe may not have followed in his father’s footsteps, but he obviously learned something from him about business, and quickly determined that with the advent of Prohibition that there was a huge demand for illegal whiskey and beer. Thus, he began a career as a bootlegger. The job may have been dangerous, but Joe apparently enjoyed it and would travel all around the area in his Model A Ford selling people whisky out of a 50-gallon barrel. During the mid-twenties, Joe hired a young African-American man named Clifton Wheeler to help with the business. A handyman by trade, Wheeler quickly found himself doing most of the labor and dirty work. It was later said that Wheeler lived in fear of Joe and that whenever Joe was drunk, he would blow off steam by shooting at Wheeler’s feet, making him dance the jitterbug.
When Prohibition ended, Joes bootlegging career was dealt a temporary setback. Since he already knew quite a bit about the liquor and beer business, Joe decided to open a saloon. After purchasing a small parcel of land outside town by what is now Highway 181, Joe built a tavern which he named the Sociable Inn. In the back were two bedrooms and up front there was a bar, a player piano and a room with tables where men would drink and occasionally enjoy cockfights. While most customers seemed to get along with Joe, he was known around town as a creepy guy, someone you did not want to cross.
Joe Balls bar in Elmendorf
Even though the business seemed to do well, Joe felt he needed a gimmick to draw in customers and soon settled on the idea of having live alligators on the property. He had a hole dug behind the bar, which he then cemented and filled with water. He erected a 10-foot-tall fence, filling the pool with five live alligators (one large and four small). Joes idea panned out and hordes of customers came to look at his new pets. Saturdays were especially busy, for Joe would put on a show by taking a live raccoon, cat, dog or any other animal he could get his hands on, and throw the animal to the alligators to the delight of his customers. According to Elton Cude Jr., whose father, a Bexar County deputy sheriff, helped investigate Ball and later wrote about him in a book titled The Wild and Free Dukedom of Bexar, it was common knowledge that every Saturday night, a drunken orgy occurred any wild animal, possum, cat, dog, or any other animal without an owner helped make the show a little better. Get drunk, throw an animal in and watch the alligators, wrote Cude in his book. A similar account can also be found within the files at the San Antonio Public Library: The squawling [sic] kitten flopped into the pool. A big alligator lifted its jaws, closed like a vice, and the screaming cat was bitten in half. ‘There’s more to come, my pets!’ Big Joe Ball shouted, as the drink-crazed crowd roared in appreciation. And he next tossed a puppy into the bloody pool!
Alligator feeding on a small mammal
In addition to his alligators, Joes male customers enjoyed the fact that he would only hire the youngest and prettiest girls to waitress and tend bar. None of the girls ever seemed to stay for long, but Joe always explained that the girls were simply drifting through town looking for a quick buck.
Minnie Gotthardt, known as Big Minnie
In 1934, Joe met a woman from Seguin named Minnie Gotthardt, or Big Minnie as most knew her. Joes friends disliked her and considered her an officious and loathsome person, but Joe apparently didnt mind and the two eventually began running the bar together. The relationship lasted for almost three years, until Joe fell for Dolores “Buddy” Goodwin, one of his younger waitresses. Dolores fell in love with Joe, even though he had once thrown a bottle at her, which left a nasty scar from her eye to her neck. Things became even more complicated in 1937, when 22-year-old Hazel Schatzie Brown began working at the bar. Full of self-confidence and perilously beautiful, Joe, forever the player, fell in love once again. This created the problem for Joe of trying to balance three women, all of whom worked at his bar.
Hazel “Schatzie Brown”, victim
During the summer of 1937, part of Joes problem was solved with the disappearance of Minnie. Upon inquiry by friends and relatives of Minnies, he eagerly explained that she had left town after giving birth to a black baby. A few months later, Joe married Dolores and later revealed to her that Minnie had not run off, but rather that he had taken her to a local beach, shot her in the head, and buried her in the sand. Dolores did not seem to believe Joes story and the subject was never brought up again. In January 1938, Dolores was involved in a near fatal car accident, which resulted in the amputation of her left arm. Nonetheless, rumors quickly began flying around that one of Joes alligators had actually torn it off. Regardless of how she lost her arm, Dolores mysteriously disappeared in April and, not long after, so did Hazel.
Group of alligators (Craig S. Thom)
While the women in Joes life were anything but consistent, his alligators were always there for him. Joe was very protective of his beloved gators. It had been rumored that on one occasion, when a neighbor complained about the smell of rotting meat, Joe pulled out a gun, and in a not so polite manner explained that it must have been the alligators food that smelled and that the nosy neighbor should mind his own business if he did not want to become that food. The neighbor then reportedly moved to another city.
Despite the fact that Joe’s help kept disappearing, his business continued to thrive. Everything appeared to be going smoothly. That is until mid-1938, when Minnies family began to ask questions again. They had been unable to locate her and sought help from the Bexar County Sheriffs office. Since Joe was Minnies last known lover and employer, he was questioned on several occasions. Nonetheless, absent any evidence of foul play, he was eventually dismissed as a suspect.
A few months later another family went to police about their missing daughter, 23-year-old Julia Turner. The missing girl had also worked part time for Joe. Sheriffs deputies again visited the tavern, but Joe claimed she had told him that she was having some personal problems and wanted to move on. With nothing more to go on, investigators once again left empty handed. Later, when they searched the home Julia shared with a roommate, it was discovered that she had not packed any of her clothing or belongings. Investigators decided to return to the bar for another round of questioning. This time Joe apparently remembered that she was in a desperate state and that he had lent her $500 because she was having problems with her roommate and did not want to return home.
Only known photo of Joe Ball
During the next few months, two more of Joes employees came up missing, the names and ages of which have since been lost in time. Sheriffs deputies brought Joe in and questioned him relentlessly for hours on end, but he continued to maintain his innocence, stating that they had simply left town and moved on. With no evidence or leads to follow, the girls were added to a growing list and Joe was again in the clear.
On September 23, 1938, Joes luck began to run out. An old neighbor of his came forward and told investigators that he had witnessed Joe cut meat off a human body and feed the pieces to the alligators. And, as investigators decided what to do next, a Mexican-American man approached Bexar County deputy sheriff John Gray and told him about a foul-smelling barrel Joe had left behind his sister’s barn. It smelled, he said, like something dead was inside. The following morning, deputies John Gray and John Klevenhagen went to the barn to investigate, but the barrel was gone. Nonetheless, Joes sister corroborated the man’s story and the deputies decided to pay Joe another visit.
Bexar County deputy sheriff John Gray
When Gray and Klevenhagen arrived at the bar, they informed Joe that they were taking him to San Antonio for questioning. Joe asked if he could first close down the tavern and the deputies agreed. As the two men sat at the bar waiting, Joe grabbed a beer and quickly slammed it down. He then walked over to his register and pressed the NO SALE button. When the drawer popped open, he reached inside and grabbed a .45 caliber revolver. He briefly waved it at Gray and Klevenhagen, who yelled, “Don’t!” just as Joe pointed it at his heart. He then pulled the trigger and fell dead on the barroom floor. Some later claimed that he had shot himself in the head, but no matter, it was a fatal shot.
Deputies from all over the region were soon going over every square inch of Joes bar. Upon discovering rotting meat all around the gator pond and an axe matted with blood and hair, their initial theory was that Joe had mutilated his victims and fed them to his alligators. Investigators also began to recall other disappearances, including two missing barmaids and a teenage boy who hung out at Joe’s. The sheer horror of the situation was beginning to set in and Bexar County deputy sheriff John Gray wanted answers.
Investigators knew that Joe’s handyman, Clifton Wheeler, was probably the only living person that could help them. After securing the scene at the bar, Gray and Klevenhagen picked up Wheeler and took him back to San Antonio for questioning. Wheeler initially denied having any knowledge of what happened to the missing women, but as the day wore on he finally admitted that he had not been totally honest with them about his involvement. He then explained that Joes girlfriend, Hazel Brown, had fallen in love with another man and was planning on moving away to start a new life. This, according to Wheeler, in conjunction with accusing Joe of Big Minnies murder, caused Joe to fly off the handle and kill her. In order to verify his story, investigators wanted to see proof and asked Wheeler to show them where Joe had disposed of Hazels body.
Onlookers at the exhumation of Big Minnies body
The following day, Wheeler took investigators to an isolated spot, approximately three miles from town, near the San Antonio River. He momentarily scanned the area and then began to dig in the loose soil. After a few minutes, blood began oozing up in the dirt and a horrendous smell began to emanate from the ground. The odor became intolerable for those present and most began vomiting. Wheeler eventually pulled up two arms, two legs, and finally a torso. When asked where the head was, Wheeler pointed to the remains of a campfire. Upon closer examination, investigators found a jawbone, some teeth, and finally some pieces of a skull, which were all that remained of Hazel Brown.
As investigators cordoned of the crime scene, Wheeler said that after a long night of heavy drinking, Ball had asked him to gather up some blankets and alcohol. Afterwards, the two took Joes car and picked up a 55-gallon barrel from Joes sisters barn, and then drove down to the river. Wheeler claimed that Ball forced him at gunpoint to dig a grave, and then they opened the barrel. Inside was Hazel Brown’s body. Wheeler said that he initially refused to help dismember the corpse and that Joe had started it himself, but that in his drunken stupor Joe had a difficult time sawing off the limbs and forced Wheeler to hold them down as he sawed. Whenever the two started to get ill from the stench, they would take a break and drink more beer. When the dismemberment was finally complete, Wheeler said that they buried the corpse and threw her head on a campfire.
When questioned about Minnie Gotthardts disappearance, Wheeler said that Joe had taken Minnie to Ingleside, near Corpus Christi. Joe found a secluded area, and after a lot of drinking, he waited until Minnie was distracted and then shot her in the temple. Wheeler stated that Joe killed her because she was pregnant and he did not want that to interfere with the relationship he had with Dolores. The two men then buried her in the sand and drove back to the bar. Police went to the area and dug in the sand with hired hands and heavy machinery. Finally, on October 14, 1938, they found Minnies partially decomposed remains buried in the sand. Police continued to question Wheeler about the other missing women, but he steadfastly claimed to have no knowledge of what had happened to them.
Back at Joes bar, investigators found a scrapbook containing photos of dozens of women. This, said chief deputy sheriff J. W. Davis, might lead to the discovery of one or a dozen more murders. However, none of the photos ever proved to have any known connection to Joe.
Investigators eventually located Dolores in California. She was far from dead and had apparently left the area for a new start in San Diego. Two weeks later, in Phoenix, Arizona, they located another one of the women that had previously been listed as “missing” from the tavern.
As it turns out, none of the rotting flesh in the alligator pond was found to be human. In a 1957 interview with the San Antonio Light, Dolores “Buddy” Goodwin stated that Joe, never put no people in that alligator tank, she said. Joe wouldn’t do a thing like that. He wasn’t no horrible monster Joe was a sweet, kind, good man, and he never hurt nobody unless he was driven to it There were just two murders, she said. While it is possible that Joe never fed anyone to his alligators, it was speculated by the original investigators that he simply cleaned up any remaining flesh and bone.
In 1939, Clifton Wheeler pled guilty for his part in disposing of the bodies, and was sentenced to two years in prison. Following his release, he opened up his own bar. However, his notoriety preceded him and he was unable to show his face in public without being hounded by the press or chastised by local residents. Wheeler eventually left the area and was never heard from again. Joes alligators were eventually seized by the state of Texas and donated to the San Antonio Zoo, where they lived out the remainder of their lives as tourist attractions.
While we may never know exactly how many people Joe Ball killed, or if any of them ever ended up as gator food, his cult-like popularity lives on to this day. Known throughout the crime world as the Butcher of Elmendorf and the Bluebeard of South Texas, the story of the Alligator Man is sure to be one that will live on for generations to come.